Covid-19 threatens to derail plastic reduction efforts

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KUALA LUMPUR: Plastic waste is on the rise because of Covid-19, threatening to derail the country’s efforts to keep the environment clean.

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From face masks and takeaway plastic food containers to zip ties, experts have reported an increase in plastic waste.

The use of plastic packaging has surged, especially in food delivery, as merchants seek to keep costs down while ensuring food safety.

Waste Management Systems Sdn Bhd executive chairman Mizan Yahya said the use of plastic will increase with the change of behaviour and practice during the pandemic.

Plastic waste usually comprises slightly more than 13% all municipal solid waste in Malaysia.

The Malaysian Plastics Manufacturers Association said plastic production has grown by 0.7% up to August over the 5% in the same period last year.

“Plastic has become part of our lives, from head to toe,” said Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) president Ahmad Ismail.

When the movement control order (MCO) was enforced in March, many businesses in the food and beverage industry realised it meant higher plastic use and, therefore, more plastic waste.

Some took steps, such as limiting the use of plastic products when serving their customers by using cardboard takeaway containers and asking diners to forego plastic cutlery.

But even then, little can be done to cut plastic completely out of their take-out and delivery system, not unless they wanted to risk food safety and reduce risk of transmission of the coronavirus.

“We always focus on environmentally friendly packaging,” said Epic Food Hall co-founder Lai Wick Kee, adding that they packed their food in cardboard boxes for takeaway and delivery.

“However, we still use plastic, but our plastic is degradable plastic. Last time, we used paper bags but for delivery, it is quite challenging; on rainy days, rainwater would soak into the paper bags,” he said.

He said that as restaurants have a small profit margin, it is not unusual for vendors, especially the smaller ones, to use plastic packaging instead of the more expensive and less secure paper and cardboard containers to deliver their goods.

Another contributor to plastic waste increase is the dearth of alternative packaging.

“You’re buying a lot more packaged food. As you consume the food, there’s more waste generated out of the household. And, generally, most packaging now is plastic,” said Mizan.

He said there is little incentive to reduce its use due to the low cost and convenience of plastic.

On Nov 17, Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin said the collection of waste for recycling increased to 2,188.95 tonnes from January to September compared with 1,546.81 tonnes in the same period last year.

She also said the collection of waste for recycling has reached more than 30% this year.

Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation (SWCorp Malaysia) Federal Territories director Mohd Zahir Shari said recycling went up because people were spending more time at home and, as such, had more time to process and separate their trash for recycling.

However, the pandemic also created other complications in recycling and waste management.

“Recycling went up during the MCO. But you have to keep at it,” he said.

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In the end, it was not enough to offset the increased use of plastics.

One complication is that many of the plastic products that have seen increased usage are not recyclable. Face masks, for instance, are not, and neither are food containers that still have food residue in them.

Another is that the pandemic has shut off the informal contributor to recycling in Malaysia: the scavengers who collect recyclables from households, in dumpsters and on the streets.

Mizan said many waste-pickers have not been able to continue their activities during the pandemic out of fear of contamination or exposure to the virus, adding that it has derailed efforts to reduce plastic waste.

“People are worried that recovering post-consumption plastics could expose them to danger, infection or Covid-19. So, nobody is fishing plastics out of the general waste anymore,” he said.

Efforts to offset the spike in plastic products by using plastic products with biodegradable labels do not necessarily work either.

“Some people say it’s biodegradable but it’s only biodegradable under specific conditions. For example, there (has to be) enough oxygen and sunlight, but the same plastic immersed in water won’t biodegrade,” said Mizan.

What does not get or cannot be recycled ends up in landfills, or in some places, incinerators.

The rest, either via littering or illegal dumping, ends up in the oceans, according to P Agamuthu, a solid waste management researcher at the Institute of Biological Sciences, Universiti Malaya.

Acknowledging the risk of plastic pollution and microplastics, the government launched the Roadmap Towards Zero Single-Use Plastics in 2018, which aims to eradicate single-use plastics in 10 years.

Although slotted for this year, public education and awareness messaging have not taken off. Other aspects of the roadmap, such as a pollution charge for plastic bags and giving plastic straws only on request, are becoming a policy in all states.

However, most experts think the efforts are too weak or too little considering how much plastic use Covid-19 has sparked. They say the commitment required to effect the necessary changes to reduce plastic and protect the environment has been slow in coming.

“If you want to achieve a real reduction in plastic usage, the ban (on single-use plastics like plastic bags) has to be a total ban. We should not just talk about banning plastic or charging for plastic. We should give them a substitute so they will have another option,” Agamuthu said.

He said Malaysia needed to develop other options for reducing plastic, such as following the example of China and using organic materials to replace plastic.

Mizan echoed Agamuthu’s sentiments, saying a commitment to change was needed as every generation becomes more aware of environmental issues.

“(The younger generation) are more aware but it has not translated into action. It’s the economic factor that is driving their behaviour,” he said.

Ahmad agreed, saying he has not noticed any difference in plastic consumption between the older and younger generation.

As such, he said, the government and interested groups have to be more aggressive in changing people’s mindset and attitude over plastic. “We have to educate people to change their way of life.” .

He admitted that changing mindsets is an uphill battle, citing the group’s experience at Pulau Ketam, Selangor.

MNS has had a project to educate residents and clean up Pulau Ketam, which has a huge trash problem caused by garbage deposits from the mainland and from its residents.

However, he said, people do not see the need to protect the environment until something bad happens in front of their eyes. – FMT

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